Four Ticking Time Bombs

President Bush this week marks the first anniversary of his speech announcing his 2007 escalation of U.S. forces to Iraq by traveling to the Middle East in an effort to salvage the damage done to the region by his policies over the past seven years. Iraq will dominate the diplomatic discussions even though the Arab-Israeli conflict and containing Iran’s influence in the region are the focus of the president’s trip. And here at home, the public continues to debate whether the decline from record levels of violence in Iraq over the past three months has strengthened or weakened U.S. national security.

In fact, Bush’s Iraq policy has weakened America’s security on two key fronts. First, the United States continues to sink precious national security resources into Iraq at the expense of other threats, including Al Qaeda and its safe havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At some point in 2008, the United States will pass the $1 trillion mark for the out-of-pocket costs to U.S. taxpayers for the Bush administration’s response to September 11th. 

Second, the Bush approach to Iraq is heavily focused on military tactics, which has exacerbated rather than lessened tensions between Iraq’s competing factions by failing to make advances on resolving the country’s core power-sharing disputes. Iraq at the start of 2008 is even more bitterly divided along ethnic and sectarian lines than it was at the start of 2007, increasing the possibility that the recent declines in violence may be a temporary lull. 

Violence is down in parts of the country, but the different sides in Iraq’s multiple power struggles are further away from a sustainable power-sharing settlement. And the Bush administration’s 2007 approach has built a shaky and combustible foundation. Providing support to multiple Iraqi security forces without serious advances on Iraq’s political reconciliation risks even higher levels of conflict in 2008 and beyond.

Indeed, there are four ticking time bombs to watch closely in Iraq in the coming months that will reveal the extent of the damage done to internal Iraqi reconciliation and U.S. national security by the president’s ill-considered “surge” strategy. Those time bombs are:

  • The collapse of “bottom up” reconciliation among Sunnis
  • Increased instability in northern Iraq
  • The continuing plight of refugees and internally displaced Iraqis
  • Continued deadlock among Iraq’s national political leaders

All four of these issues are explosive to Iraqi political reconciliation—the original goal of the Bush “surge” strategy—and each one could well fragment the fragile decline in violence brought about by our brave troops in the field this past year. What’s worse, the loss in additional American lives would come amid a still smoldering set of civil wars which the “surge” has only partially tamped down. Here’s the state of these four time bombs today.

The collapse of “bottom up” reconciliation among Sunnis

In announcing the troop surge last year, President Bush argued that one of the fundamental objectives was to give Iraq’s leaders the space to advance their political transition. A less violent Iraq would lead to progress on power-sharing, he argued. Six months after the surge was announced, it became clear that the theory at the heart of the surge was flawed, which prompted the Bush administration to attempt to shift the terms of the debate to something called “bottom-up” reconciliation, first unveiled by President Bush in a June 2007 speech at the Naval War College. 

The phrase “bottom up reconciliation” mischaracterized what was happening in key Sunni communities. Many Sunni tribal forces turned against the vicious excesses of violent foreign fighters—a dynamic that predated the 2007 surge of U.S. troops. U.S. military commanders, noting this trend, provided support to Sunni “irregulars,” alternatively known as the Sunni Awakening movements or Concerned Local Citizens.

The problem is that Iraq’s central government, dominated by Shi’a and Kurds, expressed strong opposition to these groups. In fact, they only recently reluctantly agreed to integrate some of these forces into Iraq’s national security forces, though concrete action on this front remains to be seen. 

“Local reconciliation” is not what has resulted among Iraq’s Sunni community, which remains as fractious as ever. Sunni tribal leaders in the Awakening movements are criticizing Sunni political leaders in the Iraqi Islamic Party for not sharing power.  At the same time, Harith Al-Dari, the head of the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, criticized the tribal Awakening movements in an interview with Al Hayat International newspaper this week, saying the Awakening movements are operating just like Al Qaeda in Iraq did, using violence and intimidation. 

In addition, the head of the Islamic Army of Iraq, a leading Sunni insurgent group that has turned against foreign fighters, also criticized the Awakening movements this week, saying it would not cooperate with them.  The Islamic Army of Iraq is anti-Al Qaeda, against the U.S. troop presence and opposed to the Awakening movements at the same time.  Rather than creating a sustainable security framework, the U.S. moves at local levels have further complicated tensions among Sunnis. 

Increased instability in northern Iraq

While most U.S. troops are focused on the center part of the country, U.S. military commanders now say northern Iraq is the most dangerous part of the country. The security situation has deteriorated in northern Iraq on three fronts:

  • A new safe haven for insurgents and terrorists in Mosul. The security situation in Iraq’s third-largest city is sharply deteriorating as more insurgents make it their new haven.
  • Continued tensions in Kirkuk. In yet another missed target in Iraq’s political transition, Iraq did not meet the deadline set in article 140 of the constitution to hold a referendum on the status of the city of Kirkuk and other territories. As Spencer Ackerman noted, this adds to the growing tensions in northern Iraq. 
  • Ongoing violence along the Turkish border. Turkish forces have continued their strikes inside Iraqi territory against Kurdish terrorist groups. 

All three of these flashpoints in northern Iraq are raw and open, threatening the one area of Iraq that had achieved a level of peace and security prior to the surge.

Refugees and Internally Displaced Iraqis

By the end of 2007, more than 4 million Iraqis were driven from their homes by the violence, and fewer than 2 percent of them have returned. The Iraqi Red Crescent Society recently reported that about one in four people in Baghdad were displaced by the end of 2007.

More than a million Iraqis were displaced in Baghdad alone. This has created problems involving informal housing settlements, which certainly is not conducive to political reconciliation. What’s worse, the ethnic cleansing within the capital city has clearly hardened the political positions of the Shi’a and Sunni who lost their homes. Holding local elections, a key goal of the Bush administration, is difficult and complicated because of the logistical challenges posed by these massive displacements. 

Continued Deadlock among Iraq’s National Political Leaders

At the start of 2008, Iraq’s leaders are still debating the same issues that they were debating in 2004 and 2005, with no serious forward progress on striking a power-sharing agreement. Iraq’s leaders remain fundamentally at odds over Iraq’s identity and distribution of power and natural resources. Political reconciliation is impossible when the political debate swirls around what Iraq is and should be, how power is and should be distributed, and who controls and should control the nation’s oil wealth.

Because of these sharp divisions, Iraq’s national government has made little progress on the fundamental questions related to constitutional reform, oil and revenue sharing, and the balance of power between national and provincial governments. The Iraqi parliament decided to suspend its session for the rest of the year on December 6, 2007 without achieving any meaningful progress on the core issues that animate Iraq’s conflict over power. This recess comes just four months after a month-long recess in August, despite the long list of issues to tackle. 

Without some sort of emergency political and diplomatic intervention, Iraq’s leaders at the national level will likely spend 2008 without achieving meaningful resolution. Chances are high they may take these power-sharing struggles to the streets, which may happen even if the parliament manages to pass some of this legislation since consensus among the legislators does not at all guarantee implementation will be possible.

These four ticking time bombs in Iraq require the United States to make a strategic shift to a new policy. All four are issues that U.S. troops on the ground cannot resolve. Instead, they require increased diplomatic intervention. 

Heading into his last year in office, President Bush has a chance to set policy back on the right course. The United States needs to send a signal that its commitment of troops is not open-ended. Rather than tinkering on the margins and avoiding the tough negotiations necessary to strike power-sharing deals among Iraq’s leaders, the Bush administration should implement a strategic reset of its approach to Iraq and the Middle East, centered on a phased redeployment of U.S. troops and intensified diplomatic efforts to resolve Iraq’s conflicts and stabilize the Middle East.

Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Peter Juul is a consultant at the Center.